Poor Martha. She may or may not have known much in advance that Jesus and a dozen or so of his followers were stopping by. After all, there were no cell phones, or any phones for that matter. The house is a mess, and I don't have anything ready. There was no Turkey Hill or 24 hour supermarket. So she might have been absolutely scrambling. Go to the well and draw water for cooking, build the fire and bake the bread and prepare whatever else there may be. Tidy the place up, maybe change into something else to wear. And then they arrive, and there may be feet to wash in true hospitality of the day and serving the food and maybe the wine, and …SIGH. What is Mary doing? Well, apparently when she hears Jesus is coming, she gets excited, she can't wait to see him and hear him teach. And she greets him warmly. Sits at his feet, rapt in suspense, hanging on his every word. For Mary, hearing that Jesus will be here at her house is like scoring tickets to the big concert you have been dying to see. You drop everything and enjoy.
And this is not the first time Jesus encounters Mary and her sister Martha. Mary is the woman who anointed his feet with expensive perfume and dried them with her hair. And of course later Jesus will raise Lazarus from the dead. There may have been, and probably were other occasions that are not recorded. There is a closeness between Jesus and this family. But he is still company and he has a posse with him everywhere he goes.
So Martha is in overdrive preparing to welcome Jesus into the home. And she is doing, and doing, and when will she just get to sit, and doesn't Mary see how much there is to do?! Why should Mary be the one to just sit, I want to sit, but of course that wouldn't be right- there are all these things to do.
It reminds me of a T-shirt I once saw in a catalog with three sayings. "To do is to be " attributed to Plato
"To be is to do" attributed to Camus
"Do be do be do" – Frank Sinatra
Viewed slightly differently, the do/be cycle is where we usually end up when considering this passage. Do-be-do-be, looks like a dog chasing its tail. And Jesus looks like he is rebuking Martha for choosing doing over being. But is that really the message here?
In breaking down the interaction, it sounds like Martha, who is on familiar terms with Jesus, treats him almost like family, like one of my kids coming and saying "It's not fair, I am doing all of the chore-make Mary help." Tattling and venting all at the same time. While Martha would never have talked this way with a stranger, she is comfortable enough to tell Jesus, "Mary will listen to you, tell her to get up and DO something." We have things to do to welcome you. Rather than get sucked into Martha's lament, Jesus changes the paradigm. It is not about doing versus being, and he is not really rebuking Martha, he is trying to comfort her, redirect her, and get her off of the spinning hamster wheel.
I can picture him placing his hand on her tensed up shoulder, and calming her. For he says first, "you are worried and distracted by many things." And who hasn't been there? We live in a "to do" world. Our world measures us in terms of our tangible accomplishments. We need to "Git 'R Done." And we have so many techno-gadgets to keep track of all of our stuff we have to do. PDA's, web calendars, buzzing Blackberry's. In our churches we often carry over the same things, into committees, agendas, long-range plans, formalized ways of doing almost everything. We are so busy doing. Some of us then excel at this by taking on too much of the things we are sure must get done. People burn out, ignore self-care, and ministry stops being done out of love or devotion and becomes a drudgery. Martha in today's world, like some of us would be a good candidate for chronic fatigue syndrome. But for Jesus' intervening comment, we can imagine his entire visit happening without Martha ever really experiencing its purpose. We in turn, become so focused upon the doing of our lists that we lose sight of the purpose.
Which leads us to the second thing Jesus says after he tells Martha she is distracted by many things. "There is need of only one thing." That one thing is being in God's presence. Talking to God, listening to God. Learning from God. Getting fed. And the way we welcome God into our midst is not the same kind of active doing that populates our to do lists and forms. "Come, spend time with me, let's enjoy each other's company, for I will not be here long," Jesus is saying to Martha. "I know you care for me, relax." In our busy world, we meet Jesus in many ways. In worship, in prayer and in others brought into our midst. Walter Wangerin, in his series, "Four Acts of Prayer" shares that there are four parts of prayer. Step One, we talk. Step Two, God listens. Step Three, God talks. And here is the one we all sometimes skip out on. Step Four, we listen. This is what Mary was DOING.
For me, the story of what Mary is up to is that she was not doing nothing. She was doing something. She was listening and sharing with God. And the third thing Jesus says is that for this, this doing, she " has chosen the better part, the thing that cannot be taken away." The things we do to welcome God into our midst, come and go without feeding us, when we do not stop and listen. Talk and listen, and then allow this to lead our actions.
If we give God the rightful place of priority in ordering our days, we will be choosing the better part. And we will be making more personal connections instead of gestures that feel superficial. And we will let God call the tune rather than getting caught up in our lists.
I recently attended Seminary Weekend at LTSG, and in the Saturday evening worship service, Pastor Mark Oldenburg preached about ministry. Let's be honest, there are meetings, there are agendas, and there are forms that clutter our days. "Blessed are the forms for they will always be with you" could characterize our lives. Paraphrasing the part that hit home for me in his sermon was a statement that when you are on your way to "do" the ministry that needs to be done, that is where you will meet Jesus. And so it is for each of us, pastors or laypeople. On the way to fulfilling your to-do list of calls and visits, and all of the above, you will meet Jesus, in unexpected ways. A person will cross your path who was not scheduled but you will meet Jesus. It may happen at a time that is not of your choosing. You may have all of these other things to do. But in ministering there, you will choose the better part as Mary did.
Of course, back to Martha, she is hard to change. When Lazarus has died, she rebukes Jesus for not getting there sooner, "Where were you?" After all, there was work to be done. And now it is too late, and don't open that tomb, it's going to stink in there, and then I'll have that to deal with." Jesus, repeats the same theme. Relax, "Did I not tell you to believe?"
And so it is for us. Even if we want to be more like Mary, many of us find habits hard to change. But even when we fail, God's grace is there for us. Even when church is running long and at the communion rail you are really thinking about what you need to get at the store for dinner, or half a dozen other things distract you. God is there for us at the table, saying, "you are worried and distracted by many things, but you only need one thing." And he feeds us and sends us out to try anew.